BOOK REVIEW: How to Love a Country by Richard Blanco

How to Love a CountryHow to Love a Country by Richard Blanco
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out March 26, 2019

 

This book takes one on a roller coaster ride of insight into the author’s relationship with his country as an immigrant from a family of Cuban exiles. At times the tone is hopeful and at other times seething or even vitriolic. Unlike many of the angry works of political verse of late, this one sometimes reflects that most beautiful of pragmatic truths: one can’t truly love anything if one can’t embrace it imperfections and all. As it happens, this wide sway in tone is partly the result of these poems being collected from various sources. Having a poem commissioned by the State Department in a collection with a poem that was a response to a news story about someone being gunned down is bound to result in some variation in feel. Still, I think the poems were well-organized to reflect the various trials and glories one goes through in a relationship. The angry verse is well-positioned toward the middle, and about the time I was over the rage, the storm clouds began to break up and a more beautiful scene unfolded.

The poems are prose poetry or free verse. There is beautiful use of language interspersed with plain-spoken verse.

I’d recommend this collection for poetry readers. I don’t suspect it will have a particularly wide audience. A jingoistic reader who picks it up for its title will drop it like a hot rock long before getting to the aforementioned angry plateau. Which is not to say that there isn’t something to be gained from reading this book even if it doesn’t comport with one’s own views. The issue of division along fault lines of political-philosophy is a major theme of this collection.

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BOOK REVIEW: When I Walk Through that Door, I Am by Jimmy Santiago Baca

When I Walk Through That Door, I Am: An Immigrant Mother's QuestWhen I Walk Through That Door, I Am: An Immigrant Mother’s Quest by Jimmy Santiago Baca
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a narrative poem telling the story of an El Salvadoran woman who is separated from her child after illegally immigrating to the United States. It’s quite a timely topic, but as a work of literature and a “call to arms” it could have done much better.

This poetic novella is gripping to read, but is over-the-top in spots, and that does it a disservice in two ways. First of all, it takes the reader out of the story as they may become lost in the disbelief. Secondly, it takes a work that could have been a persuasive call for change, and turns it into an angry rant. To give a prime example, at one point early in the piece, the lead character has been (gang-)raped four or five times over the course of two pages, by varied factions including US law enforcement officers. Even if one were to accept the author’s presumed premise that American federal law enforcement agents are morally equivalent to the gangs of the drug cartels (a premise not likely to be accepted by the meaty-middle of society), one is left to ignore the fact that female prisoners, once in custody, aren’t left unsupervised with male guards. I know the reader may say, but this is a technical detail in a fictitious narrative poem. However, given the way the piece is presented (discussed more below), it reads like it’s telling us a story that is meant to move us through the proposition that this is the world in which we live. But once one reads one falsity, one is left wondering whether any part of the story is reflective of reality.

The idea that this woman is exploited by every male she comes into contact with, whether they are gang members or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, has poetic merit. It’s pointing out that without legal status, she is in a perpetually vulnerable state. Yet, it seems lazy and sensationalist to make all such exploitation rape. When one morally equates gangs with agents of a democratic government, one isn’t just saying that the individuals are equivalent, you are casting aspersions against the entire system of rule of law. (Because, of course, protections should be in place, and — failing them — the means to lodge complaints. And I think most would argue that both are the case.) The bigger problem, one found throughout the political spectrum in the US, is that individuals vilify each other, pretending they are being persuasive, when in reality they are just more deeply etching an “us-them” divide. By this I mean to say, one can’t tell people how vile, despicable, and evil they are, and then expect them to see your perspective.

The narrative poem is delivered in a combination of free verse and poetic prose all of which verges largely on just plain prose. That is to say, the emphasis is on telling a story and not so much on the usual core components of poetry, i.e. sound, imagery, and metaphor. (Unless some of these fictitious elements, e.g. the astounding number of rapes, are meant to be metaphorical. Then my concern would be that one risks diminishing a horrible thing, if one throws around that word as metaphor.)

This is a quick read, and, as I mentioned, it’s presented in a gripping fashion – if hyperbolically so. I suspect that it will be mostly read by a demographic determined along political lines, which is a shame. It could have been so much more.

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